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Rick Gekoski

Rare book dealer, publisher, Man Booker judge.

Rick Gekoski, an American who went to Oxford to do his PhD and never returned home, used to supplement his university lecturing income with poker winnings. Then he discovered the rare books market. He runs a highly successful London book dealership, publishes limited editions as a hobby and has written books about Joseph Conrad and premiership football. Gekoski is a judge for the Man Booker prize, which will be announced this week. Yet although critics have called it a "vintage year", he doesn't think much of modern literature.

Okay, dumb question. How do you know if a book is a first edition? You know you have a first edition on your hands if there is no evidence to the contrary. If the book says "first published in 1938", usually on the verso of the title page and it doesn't, under that, say second printing, second impression, reprinted 1940, or whatever. American publishers can be more complicated. If you want to see the kinds of mistakes that can be made, go onto ebay or abebooks.com, where anybody can claim that they're a book dealer and the amount of ludicrous, Wild West, shoot-guns-in-the-air ignorance is astonishing.

For a man who has been dealing in books for over 20 years, your personal collection of first editions is tiny: six. I had six, but I recently sold two. Somehow, for me, it's always been the case that, though I'm hugely excited when I see a great book and get an immense amount of pleasure from the acquisition of it, that pleasure attenuates quite quickly. It's also the case that the only conditions under which I can continue to buy expensive books are by selling them. I'm not in a financial position where I can give myself $60,000 and $90,000 and $150,000 gifts, which is what you're doing when you keep a book.

What four books are in your collection? I have a first edition of Ulysses, I have the only inscribed copy of the first edition of The Waste Land that's in private hands, I have D H Lawrence's own copy of The Rainbow, with his ownership signature and book plate, and I have Hemingway's first book, Three Stories and Ten Poems, inscribed to the person who discovered him, Edward J O'Brien. If the right offer came for any of those books, would I sell them? The answer is, yeah, I guess I would.

Why give up being senior lecturer and chairman of the University of Warwick arts faculty to speculate on old books? Throughout the 70s, it became clear to me that inveterately I spend 20 percent more than I earn. I had to find a way to keep the bank manager happy. I did part of that by playing poker, which I was pretty good at (at an amateur level), part of it by being a book scout, which is somebody who buys from one dealer and sells to another, so you learn how to spot books that are underpriced. By 1982, I was making an average of about $18,000 a year and my salary as a university lecturer was about $45,000. The first year as a fulltime dealer I made twice what I made as a senior lecturer and I've never made less than that again.

You deal primarily in British literature from 1870 to 1940. Why so selective? That's the stuff that I'm trained in. I've always been more comfortable as a dealer if I didn't think of myself merely as a trader but also as somebody who had scholarly knowledge of the stuff that he was purveying. There are very good and successful dealers who make a lot more money than I do who don't have the faintest idea of the contents of the book. They can tell you what the last one at auction fetched, what the condition is, what the bibliographic points are, etc, but if you say, "Is this a good book in the canon of this author?", they say, "I don't know." Well, I know. If you buy me a beer and sit me down for half an hour, I'll tell you anything. Second, it seems pretty clear to me that the period since World War II, both in England and America, is not a great period in the production of plays or novels or poems. If you say who are the great postwar novelists, whatever decision you make, those people are not going to compare very favourably in my mind to Virginia Woolf, D H Lawrence, James Joyce, Joseph Conrad, Henry James. Hemingway. Fitzgerald. Steinbeck. Faulkner. Eliot. Fabulous! That's the richest period since the Renaissance.

You're a Man Booker judge this year. Given that you don't think this is a great period in literature, how did you approach the task of choosing a winner? I was looking for a book that will still be read with pleasure and admiration in 100 years. Something that has some universality, which has writing worth taking seriously as writing, which gets its hooks into you imaginatively and doesn't want to let go and from which you feel you learn something.

How do you know a great book when you read one? You want to know a great novel? Conrad's Nostromo is a great novel. If you don't see that Conrad's Nostromo is a great novel, then in some sense you are the literary equivalent of colour-blind. All you have to do is to have read enough novels. I like the criterion of books that get their hooks into you imaginatively and don't let go, so you are nagged or haunted or shadowed by the book.